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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Ba’athism and the history of the Left in Iraq: Violence and politics

Ba’athism and the history of the Left in Iraq: Violence and politics

Ian Morrison

Platypus Review 3 | March 2008


Since the 1960s the saturation of brutality and violence in Iraq has caused considerable confusion among Leftists in regards to both its political meaning and causes. One cannot fully understand the character of Saddam Hussein’s Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party without taking into account that it achieved political power by systematically killing off the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and quelling other political dissent with acts of extreme cruelty. The eight year battle of attrition instigated by Hussein, known as the Iran-Iraq War, caused over half a million Iraqi deaths, and the ethnic cleansing campaigns directed against the Kurds resulted in countless more. It is estimated that during the 1988 Anfal Campaign alone over 100,000 Kurds were massacred. In addition to the many catastrophic events that mark the history of Ba’athist society, it is perfectly clear that Hussein’s one-party-state was maintained through the use of relentless day-to-day violence directed against its citizens.

Kanan Makiya’s groundbreaking study of Iraqi Ba’athism, Republic of Fear, documents instances of institutionalized violence used to terrorize Iraqi society. In the 1998 introduction, Makiya recounts a law passed in the chaotic aftermath of the first Gulf War mandating that the state brand the mark of an X on the forehead of repeat offenders of crimes such as theft and desertion; the first offense of such crimes was punished by amputation of the hand. When a doctor who performed amputations for the state was murdered by one his patients the medical community was outraged and called a strike. However, after the state threatened to cut off the ear of any doctor who refused to enforce the law, the protest was called off.[1]

Iraqi Ba’athism, and the struggle against it, continues to confound today’s Anti-War movement. Ramsey Clark, former United States Attorney General under President Lyndon B. Johnson and founder of ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), exemplifies the problematic stances that the movement has assumed. In 2004 Clark volunteered to defend Hussein at his trial before the Iraqi Special Tribunal, speaking out against the unfairly “demonized Saddam Hussein.” The sight of a prominent opponent of the Iraq War publicly defending Hussein should have caused serious alarm among the Left for the obvious reason that it directly challenged solidarity between the Anti-War movement and the Iraqi Left, which struggled against dictatorship for three decades.

The ideological roots of Ba’athism were formulated by its founding leader Michel ‘Aflaq, who during his education at the Sorbonne, first developed his political eclecticism. His speeches and writings often contradict each other but the most pronounced feature of ‘Aflaq’s thinking is his appropriation of Johann von Herder’s notions of the “soul” or “spirit” of the Nation, which he imbued with Arab/Islamic chauvinism. This is coupled with a revision of Lenin’s theory of Imperialism in what has become a typical formulation since the period of de-colonization. ‘Aflaq writes, “contrary to what happened in the West, the revolt of the Eastern peoples carries in the first place a liberatory humanitarian character, because it is directed against Imperialism… and whereas oppression in the West falls only on classes, the East is made up of Nations that are oppressed.”[2] ‘Aflaq carefully mitigates the issue of domestic class conflict; he accounts for internal strife by attributing its cause to an omnipotent external power. The notion of an uniquely “Arab socialism” coupled with nationalism also helped fuel powerful forms of racism, by galvanizing anti-Semitism and helping justify the campaigns against the Kurds. Anti-imperialism and anti- Zionism became common scapegoats for social ills often despite any logical relation to the problems in question. It should be noted that such theories created a clear divide between the Ba’athists and the Communist Parties, as the latter sought to base their politics in class struggle, domestic and international.

In the key moments after the 1958 revolution, when the ICP was at the height of its power, two paradigmatic conflicts between the Communists and the Nationalists greatly undermined the ICP’s potential as a progressive, unifying political force. Social animosities overflowed when the ICP sought to suppress a pan-Arab revolt in Mosel, in which political activity decayed into ethnic and civil violence. The Iraqi historian Hanna Batatu wrote that during the Mosel conflict, “It seemed as if all social cement dissolved and all political authority vanished. Individualism, breaking out, waxed into anarchy. The struggle between nationalists and communists had released age-old antagonism, investing them with an explosive force and carrying them to the point of civil war.”[3] The outbreak of violence first in Mosel, then in Kirkut, where Kurdish members of the ICP lashed out against their traditional rivals the Turcomans, played an essential part in legitimizing the Ba’athists.

After these two events it was reported that communists had killed civilians and committed acts of torture. In a statement just after the Kirkut incident the ICP wrote:

In well-known articles published a long time ago we stressed that “the method is the touch-stone.” But is seems that there is a deliberate intent to confuse this correct and firm attitude… with the impetuosities of some simple nonparty masses…We utterly condemn any transgression against innocent people…. or the harming or torture even of traitors…. We condemn theses methods on principle….[4]

Nevertheless the political regression was in full swing such that the ICP’s follies allowed the Ba’athists to capitalize on the populist violence and disarray. In February of 1963 the Ba’athists mounted their first coup (with smaller numbers than the ICP had in 1959), and launched an effort to liquidate the ICP. Reflecting on the forms of violence directed at the ICP in 1963 Batatu writes that,

It is, of course, possible that the reaction of the Ba’athists might not have been as fierce, had the Communists been “prudent” or, if one prefers, “timid,” and offered no resistance on the day of the coup. But in truth the violence of 1963 is largely explicable by the violence of 1959, which, on a close reading of history, certainly did not mark a new departure in the political life of Iraq....If one is inclined to attribute the violence, at least in part, to doctrinal influences, then one would have also to explain how these doctrines happened to arise, and why minds or masses of people came to be susceptible to them, in both the immediate Iraqi and the more distant and wider contexts.[5]

The violent disarray and instability proved to be the optimal breeding ground for the Ba’ath Party. It is incumbent upon the Left today to understand the roots of such violence, and to look at how these doctrines arise and realize their political outcomes.

Furthermore, it is important to take a step back, and look at how the Left emerged in Iraq, because there is no doubt that the Left is in a period of rebuilding. Historically, the Iraqi Left emerged in last the years of World War I. At that time, Husain ar-Rahhal, known as the father of Iraqi Marxism, was studying at a German high school in Berlin. According to party lore, ar-Rahhal, sitting in a Berlin pastry shop, looked on as workers began to fill the streets during the Spartakist Uprising in January 1919. His fellow schoolmates and political radicals introduced him to Die Freiheit, one of the Social Democratic Party newspapers. When he returned to Iraq he began reading The Labor Monthly, which was published by Palme Dutt, an Indian born member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and a fierce opponent of the British Empire. Ar-Rahhal enthusiasm for theory led him to start the first Marxist study circle in Iraq at the Baghdad School of Law.

Ar-Rahhal’s circle became one of a plethora of Iraqi groups that emerged in the 1920s. Some groups stemmed directly from the Second International, others from the Communist Committee of Syria and Lebanon. Two former Massachusetts Institute of Technology students founded another key circle. The various groups solidified during the boycott of the British owned Baghdad Electrical Light and Power Co. when they focused their energy towards reforming and reclaiming civil society.

The early catalysts of the Left, labor reform and theoretical fermentation, are the demands of our time. In the post-Saddam era it is absolutely essential that the Left discern between progressive and reactionary forms of political action, as well as anti-Americanism, in their call for immediate troop withdrawal. As the International Secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, Hadi Saleh said, “Extremists who target trade unionists kill them under the notion that they are collaborating with a state created by the Americans… It’s a risk for all civil society organizations.” The fate of Saleh, who was tortured and killed by reactionary-sectarian forces, shows how high the stakes are.[6] Groups like US Labor Against the War, who have brought Iraqi labor organizers to America and fought to repeal the law against unions in Iraq, demonstrate that solidarity can be tangible and progressive. The anti-war movement desperately needs to hold fast to its self-proclaimed universal principles, acts of solidarity, demands for labor reform and calls for national reconciliation if it is to be a force for progressive politics. |P

[1]. Republic of Fear (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), ix-xi.
[2]. Quoted in Republic, 243.
[3]. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A study of the Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba’thists and Free Officers (London: SAQI, 2004), 866.
[4]. Quoted in The Old Social Classes, 921.
[5]. The Old Social Classes, 993-4.
[6]. Quoted in David Bacon, “Iraqi Unions Defy Privatization,” The Progressive, October 2005.